Last night we watched Akeelah and The Bee. Yeah, I know it’s old news. We catch lots of movies long after any buzz has died down. (Get it. Bee and buzz? Ha ha. I’m so clever.) Anyway, in case anyone out there is even more behind than we are, it’s a great little movie. I connected with the story on a number of levels. For one thing, it touches on the idea of loving words as being worthwhile in and of themselves. When I taught English I used a course called Vocabulary from Classical Roots that explored the etymology of words–how Latin and Greek influenced the development of our language, and how words are built from roots and prefixes and suffixes, each enriching meaning.
Language is an art form. We build words from letters like a musician builds a melody from notes. Or like a sculptor builds a work of art from metal or clay. The letters used not only make sounds, they embody histories. Really we ought not take words for granted like we do.
The movie also addresses community and self-worth, brokenness and healing, risking failure to reach your dreams. Good stuff to think about. But the most fun memory Akeelah’s adventures resurrected took us back to the Harrison County Spelling Bee of 1993. Grace was a ten-year-old fifth grader that year, and she’d won the spelling bee at her smallish private school. When they told her she’d be competing at the county bee, she was mortified. Not only would she be up against 5th-8th graders from all over the county, she’d have to sit on a stage in an auditorium and spell into a microphone for real judges in front of a real audience.
In the movie, Akeelah wants to back out of her regional bee because it’s not cool to be smart in her ‘hood. Grace wanted to back out, too, but her reason was terminal shyness. She hated a spotlight of any kind. She begged and pleaded with me to talk to her teacher and request she be excused, but I said she needed to go through with it. I also promised to buy her a new outfit for the event, which eased the agony somewhat.
“Okay,” she said. “But I’m going to get out on purpose.”
I didn’t try to argue with her. She’d heard that the top two winners of the county bee had to compete in Dallas, and that event would be televised. She’d die before she’d get in front of a TV camera.
So we bought a cute outfit and showed up for the county bee. She didn’t study at all, and none of us were nervous, because we knew she planned to lose.
When her first turn came around she stepped to the microphone. Grace was so tiny as a child, she had to lower it straight down and tilt her head upward to speak into it. I don’t remember what her first word was, but I do remember it wasn’t much of a challenge. She may have been shy to the bone, but she did have a bit of pride. She spelled that one correctly. And the next. And the next. I don’t recall how many rounds the bee went, but I could see her wheels turning. As long as she wasn’t in the top two, she wouldn’t have to go on TV. Might as well keep spelling till the crowds thinned.
When the competition was down to four people, I watched her glance around the stage. Better not risk it. If one of the others missed a word, she’d be the alternate. If two missed . . . ! The time had come. She stepped to the microphone.
“Horizon,” the announcer said.
“Horizon,” Grace repeated. “H-O-R-I-Z . . .” She paused and looked right at me. I smiled. She looked back at the microphone and quickly said ” . . . I-N-E. Horizon.” Then she flashed a beautiful smile at the audience.
The announcer said, “I’m sorry. That is incorrect.”
Grace’s smile never faded as she left the stage.
As we were leaving the auditorium, several people stopped us to offer both congratulations and condolences. I thanked them. Probably best not to go into explanations–especially since she’d beaten lots of kids who truly cared about winning. But then the announcer, an older gentleman who attends our church, stopped me in the aisle. He grinned and whispered, “She did that on purpose, didn’t she?”
“Yes,” I said, rolling my eyes.
He just chuckled.
Thankfully Grace had enough people encouraging her along the way, she learned to push her shyness aside and to use her gifts in public arenas. It’s a good thing, because her path led to lots of on-stage time in high school and college. And now that she’s engaged to a professional musician and performing often with him, it looks like she’ll find herself in the spotlight more and more in the foreseeable future. Or better said, from here to beyond the horizine.